MOREHEAD CITY — Community residents on Wednesday grilled officials connected to a plan to fumigate logs for export at the state port here.
About 150 attended a public forum at the Crystal Coast Civic Center on the plan and recently filed state air quality permit application to use the pesticide methyl bromide. Many who spoke at the city-sponsored meeting said the plan is dangerous and incompatible with the surrounding area.
“This is not the place for this,” said a resident of Leeward Harbor, a condominium complex adjacent to the port facility.
Attendees raised concerns about how the fumigant may impact nearby housing, waterways and roadways and the tourism industry considered vital to this area. They also sought information on safeguards, response plans and public alerts in the event of a chemical mishap.
“When I heard the words ‘methyl bromide,’ I nearly hit the ceiling,” said Gerharda Sanchez, a retired physics and chemistry teacher who lives in Beaufort.
She also said the chemical is a neurotoxin that, when vented to the atmosphere as proposed, would likely rain back down in very small droplets.
Because it is considered an ozone-depleting substance, methyl bromide, or MeBr, was phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2005, except for allowable “critical use exemptions” – cases in which there are no technically and economically feasible alternatives or substitutes available that are acceptable from the standpoint of environment and public health, according to the EPA.
The pesticide is still allowed for use – and a required application for import of logs in many countries – on a number of commodities, also including food products.
Panel of experts
Responding to audience questions during the session was a panel composed of Don van der Vaart, Brad Newland and Tom Mather of the N.C. Division of Air Quality; Bob Schaefer of the N.C. Forestry Association; Rob Mantrop of Cogent Fibre, the Canadian company that plans to export entire yellow pine logs mainly to China, India and Turkey; Anne Bookout, vice president of Royal Pest Solutions, the company that would perform fumigation services if the permit is approved; and Jeff Marshall, a chemical engineer that provides consulting services to Royal Pest Solutions. Morehead City Mayor Jerry Jones presided over the session.
Mr. Marshall said government authorities require fumigation by “to keep pests from hitchhiking from country to country.” Fumigation is often required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for imports and in other countries that receive U.S. exports to prevent spread of pests such as Asian longhorn beetles, which are log borers, snails and other species that can become invasive when introduced into a non-native environment.
“Fumigation has been performed at the port on a periodic basis for decades,” Mr. Marshall said.
The air quality permit, which Royal Pest Solutions seeks in an application received at DAQ July 1, is required due to the quantity of methyl bromide proposed for use.
Cogent Fibre expects to produce enough logs to warrant six to eight ships per year with about 2.7 million cubic feet of logs per vessel, Mr. Marshall said.
The fumigation process
If the application is approved, the fumigation process calls for the logs to be fumigated at one or two open-air storage sites on the port facility by covering them with heavy tarpaulins that are sealed to the ground with several rows of heavy “sand snakes.” The tarpaulins are then filled with the methyl bromide gas at a dose of 5-7.5 pounds per 1,000 cubic feet for about 16 hours.
After fumigation, a portable duct is inserted beneath the tarp and connected to aeration fans to discharge the methyl bromide into the atmosphere through portable, elevated stacks or by raising the portable duct using a bucket lift.
During the process, the surrounding air is monitored to assure compliance with regulatory concentration limits.
Methyl bromide was introduced as a pesticide in 1931 and was first registered in the U.S. in 1961. It is considered highly volatile with a boiling point of 38.5 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is a gas at ambient conditions above that temperature.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of re-registering the product, subjecting it to the same scrutiny that newly introduced pesticides must go through for approval. An updated product label is expected late this year or early in 2014.
Application of methyl bromide is strictly regulated, Mr. Marshall said, and supervised by regulatory officers.
He said weather conditions are monitored before and during the process, which can be halted at any time.
“If the weather forecast doesn’t look good, it’s just postponed,” Mr. Marshall said.
He said the chemical would not be applied or discharged when temperatures are below 40 degrees.
The pesticide would be delivered to the port by trucks designed to transport hazardous materials. It would likely come from one of various distribution centers, most likely one located in the central part of the state.
Permitting and regulation
The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Structural Pest Control and Pesticide Division regulates firms and individuals using methyl bromide in the state and requires training and examinations and continuing education for license renewals.
The N.C. Division of Air Quality regulates emission permitting and also subjects the permit-holder to ongoing requirements. Methyl bromide is not a toxic air pollutant under state regulations program but is considered an air pollutant. It is also considered an ozone-depleting substance.
Mr. van der Vaart of DAQ said a new facility projected to emit more than 10 tons per year of an air pollutant is subject to Clean Air Act regulations, which include more than 100 specific requirements.
Because the EPA hasn’t defined a method of regulation for fumigation, permit applications must be considered on case-by-case basis, he said. That process includes a public hearing that will be held in Morehead City once the draft permit for the fumigation plan is completed.
“There are plenty of legal avenues for people who are upset by a permit,” Mr. van der Vaart said.
Attendees noted during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting that regulatory authorities had cited Royal Pest Solutions in the past.
Ms. Bookout, vice president of RPS, said the firm and another company were named in a citizen’s complaint in Virginia related to a fumigation operation, but added that RPS had become “a leader in the industry” in working with regulators to develop safety policies and methods.
RPS was also, as the exclusive fumigation company operating at the port of Wilmington, Del., for 18 years, named along with the Diamond State Port Corp. in a violation of the Clean Air Act and Delaware laws regarding the use of methyl bromide.
Ms. Bookout said the company had operated at the facility without a permit and a $150,000 fine was assessed. But because the state had not developed regulatory standards for methyl bromide use at the time, the fine was allowed to be offset by the cost of an emission system at the facility and the company’s cooperation in developing and implementing measures to be set forth in Diamond State Ports Corp.’s air permit in that state.
Responding to a similar question from the audience, Ms. Bookout said RPS had not been turned down on permit applications in the past but the firm, which has operations in about eight states, currently has two applications pending approval.
“We don’t fit the model that air quality was made for, so we wind up being a special case,” Ms. Bookout said.
Economic impacts, costs
Mr. Marshall said there is no better alternative to methyl bromide to treat the pests of concern under the proposed circumstances.
He said the gas doesn’t impact stormwater runoff and the chemical can be found naturally – in trace amounts – in the ocean, probably as formed by algae or kelp.
“The bottom line is the ocean is accustomed to having a little bit of methyl bromide out there,” Mr. Marshall said.
But Ms. Sanchez, during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, dismissed Mr. Marshall’s claim that methyl bromide is produced naturally in any substantive manner. She also said the chemical, when vented to the atmosphere as proposed, would likely rain back down in very small droplets.
“If it’s heavier than air, it’s not going to go anywhere except downwind,” she said.
But Mr. Marshall countered that the chemical does not condense and will not “sink” like particulate emissions from a power plant.
“The fact that it’s regulated as an ozone-depleting substance tells me that it rises,” he said.
Mr. Schaefer of the N.C. Forestry Association said he had never encountered a problem with methyl bromide in more than 18 million acres of timberland in the state. He said the chemical is a requirement for North Carolina products to reach a global market.
“We embrace any additional markets we can get and it will mean more jobs and more commerce,” he said.
Mr. Mantrop of Cogent Fibre said his company, which now operates the wood pellet facility at the port, is not a “fly-by-night” operation. The company was established in 2004 in Savannah, Ga., and has shipped more than 5 million tons of wood product, primarily to Turkey, and has become the largest exporter of softwood chips in the world.
He said the firm uses local suppliers and local labor exclusively and the log export operation would result in 30-50 new jobs and $16-22 million per year in economic benefit to the community.
Ms. Sanchez asked why the fumigation couldn’t instead take place aboard ship and vented harmlessly at sea.
Ms. Bookout said shipboard fumigation using methyl bromde is not permitted because of the risk to those on board. But other fumigants may be used aboard ships.
Morehead City Mayor Pro Tem Harvey Walker asked why the logs are not fumigated where the cutting is done.
Ms. Bookout said that was not practical.
Leigh Johnson of Morehead City asked whether recapture methods could be used instead of venting the gas to the atmosphere.
Ms. Bookout agreed that recapture technology is available but such methods involve the use of carbon or charcoal and there is the issue of what to do with the contaminated charcoal afterward.
Attendees also asked about safeguards and public alerts.
Ms. Bookout said emergency protocols are required.
“It is our practice to inform emergency responders every time we fumigate,” Ms. Bookout said.
If a problem is detected, the fumigation process can be halted immediately.
“When we shut our fans down we have basically eliminated the problem,” she said.
Contact Mark Hibbs at 252-726-7081, ext. 229; email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter @markhibbs.